Students split on holding in-person graduations despite COVID-19 fears

Although administrators put precautions in place, some students are worried.

Some high schools throughout Alabama decided to hold in-person graduation ceremonies this week, creating mixed feelings among students and parents who've dealt with weeks of canceled events as a precaution against spreading the novel coronavirus.

Roughly 500 seniors at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Alabama, attended a ceremony on the school's football field Tuesday night, with nearly 2,500 looking on from the stands. Spain Park High School and Hoover High School are slated to have their ceremonies Wednesday and Thursday night, respectively, at the Hoover Met Baseball stadium. All ceremonies enforced or plan to enforce social distancing measures, placing graduates 6 feet apart as a limited number of family and friends sit in marked sections.

Students who don't attend won't be punished, and many students, parents, teachers and alumni have said they're very concerned -- and surprised -- school administrators were taking such a risk.

"I recognize there is a want to have this graduation, but there is also a need to acknowledge there is a reality that we are living in," Jeanarry Hernandez, one of Hoover High's 17 valedictorians and who doesn't plan to attend the ceremony, told ABC News Live.

Others said having the ceremony lifted some of the anxiety caused by the pandemic.

"It is just one thing to give them closure for this part of their life," Kerri Pate, a mother of a Thompson High senior, told ABC affiliate WBMA Monday.

As of Wednesday, Jefferson and Shelby counties, where Hoover is located, had 1,771 confirmed coronavirus cases and 87 related deaths, according to data from the state and the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Statewide, there had been 12,376 confirmed cases and 504 deaths.

Gov. Kay Ivey allowed non-work-related gatherings to continue with special precautions last week, and many school systems immediately put into place in-person graduations. The move sparked criticism.

Libby Mims, a physician and 2005 graduate of Hoover High, started an online petition urging the school to reconsider and instead hold a virtual graduation ceremony. As of Wednesday, it had over 1,300 signatures.

"Coronavirus cases continue to rise in Alabama, and no matter the precautions taken a gathering of that size will have deadly consequences," she wrote in the petition.

School officials acknowledged health risks and said they made sure safeguards were put in place. At the Thompson High graduation, families were spaced out in groups of four maximum in the football stands. Several students and some of the speakers did not wear face coverings for that ceremony, but crowds were dispersed as soon as it was over.

"You and your family missed out on so many things out of your control. But not even a global pandemic could deprive you of this moment," Wayne Vickers, superintendent of Alabaster City Schools, told the Thompson High graduates.

The Hoover City school system said it will take strict measures for its two ceremonies -- Spain Park High has close to 400 seniors and Hoover has over 700. All students who choose to attend are required to wear a face covering, their families will sit in marked areas in the baseball stadium, and there will be no cap throwing or post-ceremony celebrations.

Hoover Superintendent Kathy Murphy said the school recognizes some students and families may not wish to attend, but those students still will have their names read and posted on the stadium's visual display.

"All of our students will be celebrated, even those who chose not to come -- and we understand that," she said in a video message.

Hernandez, however, said school administrators could have taken other options.

"I know this isn't the most convenient thing, but having a drive-in or in-person graduation where a limited number of people come in each day would be safer than having thousands of people come in at one time," she said.

Hernandez added that she didn't know how many of her classmates would be skipping the ceremony.

Dr. Mark Wilson, the Jefferson County health officer, said he takes residents' health concerns seriously, and school officials around the state should stress caution to faculty, students and parents while planning in-person graduations.

"It is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT that everyone involved in graduation services exercise individual responsibility to protect themselves and others. COVID-19 is a very contagious and dangerous disease," he said in a statement.